State HHS official urges caution in holiday celebrations
While the holidays can be stressful during a normal year, it’s proving even more so during the coronavirus pandemic, as families grapple with planning not only a festive holiday but also a safe one.
Dr. Vanessa Walker Harris, deputy secretary of Health and Human Resources for Gov. Ralph Northam and senior policy advisor for State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver, said she understands. She had plans to spend the holidays with family in Ohio, but with a surge of COVID-19 cases in Virginia and across the country, she made the decision to keep her family at home.
She cautioned state residents to do the same.
“What we really want people to remember is the safest thing to do this holiday season is to stay at home,” Walker Harris said during a Zoom interview. “It’s hard, but it is the best way to protect you and your family. And I get it. People are tired of the pandemic.”
Walker Harris said people should connect virtually. If connecting on a computer is not an option, she advises reaching out over the phone. It’s important to find ways to connect that allow people to stay at home and remember to wear a mask while outside the home, keep physical distance and wash hands frequently.
“We’re asking Virginians … to connect with friends and family virtually to meet, and even to have virtual meals, and to consider new traditions,” Walker Harris said. “Maybe do a gratitude activity where you write down the things you’re grateful for and share those with family and friends, maybe even over a Zoom meeting.”
Like other state health officials, Walker Harris notes the gatherings of small groups of friends and family outside their household, along with cooler temperatures driving people to spend more time inside, where the virus spreads more easily from person to person, that is helping drive the current surge in COVID-19 cases. Statewide seven-day positivity rates hover near 11%.
“It’s the mixture of these circumstances that are particularly concerning as we head more into the winter holiday season,” Walker Harris said. “We understand that people are tired of the pandemic, and they really just want to hang out with family and friends.”
For those experiencing more of a mental or emotional toll due to the pandemic, not being able to partake in their normal traditions and not being able to spend time with loved ones, Walker Harris said there is help for those who need it.
“The holiday season can be very stressful in normal times,” Walker Harris said. “And overlaying that with the COVID pandemic can make things that much more difficult.”
She noted that the state Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services has established the VA Copes Mental Health Warm Line at vacopes.com. People can call 877-349-6428 and get support from counselors if they are experiencing stress, anxiety or are having difficulty coping with the pandemic and need someone to talk to.
Walker Harris said state agencies are working to keep vulnerable populations in mind during the holiday season and ensuring there are resources to address behavioral health needs.
The main message for Virginians? Stay home and stay safe.
“What I’d really like people to remember is we were able to flatten the curve in the spring, and we can do that again if we all work together,” Walker Harris said, “remembering those simple measures like washing your hands, watching your distance and wearing a mask.
“And then for the holiday season, staying at home. Working together as Virginians, watching out for one another and taking those measures, particularly staying at home for the holiday season, we can stop the virus from spreading if we work together.”